Last week, a forest fire began burning in Israel’s Carmel mountain region. Given the dry brush and the heavy winds, it spread more quickly and unpredictably than past fires.
Israel’s prison bureau began to worry about the fate of the approximately 400 inmates at the Damon Prison, perilously close to the path of these flames. Authorities dispatched a bus filled with newly trained prison guards to move the prisoners to safety. But the unpredictable inferno soon shifted direction, and fanned across the very road these would-be rescuers were traveling. The bus caught fire, and forty prison guards were burned alive.
Almost all of the prisoners at Damon Prison were Palestinians arrested for endangering Israel’s security. Israel sent its best young recruits into the path of the flames to save them because this is what civilized societies do. The fact that it’s impossible to imagine Hezbollah or Hamas doing likewise to save Israelis tells us something important about Israel’s enemies. Far from trying to prevent Israeli deaths, they seek and celebrate them. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah demonstrated this ugly reality once again when he gloated that the forest fires were “plagues from God.” He added that, “Allah is punishing them [the Israelis] from a place they did not expect it.”
Yet Israel’s adherence to basic humanitarian principles was not entirely without reciprocation. When Israel sent out an urgent request for international aid to help it fight this unprecedented blaze, the help came pouring in. And among those sending aid were Israel’s Arab neighbors – Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – as well as Muslim Turkey, with which relations have been greatly strained in recent months.
The fact that these nations took concrete steps to help Israel battle this fire is significant. In so doing, they recognized a shared humanity between Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews. These gestures of friendship recalled those precious past moments when peace and mutual recognition seemed so very possible. In this aid we saw a faint reflection of the hope that was sparked when Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat spoke of peace before the Israeli Knesset, or when Jordan’s King Hussein asked forgiveness from the mothers of Israelis killed by a rogue Jordanian border guard.
Yet these gestures remain bittersweet. The fact that they are even noteworthy bespeaks the long distance the remains to be traversed before true peace and reconciliation is possible. It is one thing to say that Jews are people whose lives matter as much as anyone else’s. Yet it is quite another to say that Jews are a people entitled to national sovereignty like all others. The humanitarian recognition is a prerequisite to nonviolence, and it is a low bar which too many of Israel’s enemies fail to clear. But the national recognition is a prerequisite to lasting peace. And this is a higher bar upon which even Israel’s partners in cold peace too often stumble.
Yes, Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel. Yes, the Palestinian Authority is in principle committed to negotiations with Israel. Yet none of these governments speak with conviction of a Jewish people having national rights in their ancient land. These regimes have made peace treaties, but their people remain cold, aloof, and angry. These authorities sent aid, but their streets still celebrated the fires. After monitoring the internet chatter about the fire on the websites of supposedly moderate Arab publications, journalist Khaled Abu Toameh concluded that, “The overwhelming majority of talkbacks … showed how many Arabs and Muslim continue to dream about the destruction of Israel.”
It seems that just when we get the most discouraged, Israel’s Arab neighbors sometimes take action that keeps hope alive. It is in the name of this hope that Israel must continue to not only dream of peace, but to explore every practical path towards achieving it. Perhaps the recognition of Jews as humans and brothers can be the start of recognizing them as a nation entitled to sovereignty like every other. But like the fires that ravaged the Galilee, the hate that lives on in so many Arab hearts can be sparked and spread uncontrollably at the slightest provocation. Until these underlying conditions change, Israel’s leaders are wise to hope, but verify.
David Brog is the executive director of Christians United for Israel and author of a new book, In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity. You can follow David on Facebook by clicking here and on Twitter by clicking here.